Ready to tackle the project changes that inevitably come up? Want to understand how to effectively manage underperformance within your team?
Our seasoned panel of Digital Project Management professionals — Pam Butkowski, Sally Shaughnessy, & Patrice Embry — share their tried-and-tested strategies to navigate these situations with poise and effectiveness. They’ll guide you through scenarios such as clients adding deliverables, new clients rotating into a project team, and underperforming team members. You’ll discover the power of leading with empathy, advocating for your project, and understanding the cause and effect of changes.
- Strategies for Dealing With Project Changes [0:05]
- The experts stressed the importance of leading with empathy, advocating for the project, and understanding the cause and effect of changes.
- Scenarios such as clients adding deliverables, new clients rotating into a project team, and team members who start to underperform were all discussed.
- The panelists agreed that a project manager’s role is not to simply accept changes but to assess their impact and propose a course of action that balances feasibility with client and team interests.
- Client Changes and Maintaining Project Excitement [10:49]
- Maintaining project enthusiasm and managing client changeovers were also covered in depth.
- Trust, transparency, and empathy were highlighted as key to maintaining a positive dynamic within a project team.
- Strategies for enabling junior team members to take ownership of their roles, and how to navigate client changeovers without disrupting project flow, were also discussed.
- Difficult Conversations With Underperforming Team Members [20:23]
- The panel also delved into the delicate art of managing underperformance within a team. This can be a difficult task, as it requires understanding the individual’s situation, providing constructive feedback, and potentially escalating the issue if necessary.
- The panel shared their experiences and strategies, emphasizing the importance of approaching the situation with empathy and understanding.
- Recommendations for Starting a Project Smoothly [34:10]
- The importance of getting directives in writing, negotiating with clients for an earlier project start, and employing a crawl-block-run strategy were all discussed. These strategies were underscored as essential to ensuring a successful project initiation and setting the team up for success from the start.
Meet Our Guest
Sally Shaughnessy has a diverse professional background with experience in various roles and industries. Sally currently serves as the Director of Production at Code and Theory since 2022. Prior to that, they held the role of VP of Client Services at Aten Design Group from 2021 to 2022. Sally also worked at Aten Design Group as the Director of Project Management from 2017 to 2021 and as a Project Manager in 2017. Sally has also worked as a Senior Producer at Third and Grove in 2016, a Senior Digital Producer at The Integer Group from 2012 to 2016, and a Producer at DigitasLBi_US from 2005 to 2012. Sally has experience in the healthcare industry, serving as a Project Manager at Digitas Health LifeBrands from 2008 to 2011.
When you start a project, and if you start it wrong, everything’s gonna go poorly after that. And so, trying to salvage a good start as much as possible is in everybody’s best interest.Sally Shaughnessy
Pam Butkowski is the Senior VP of Delivery Management at Hero Digital. She’s spent the majority of her career in client-facing organizations leading digital project management teams at organizations including The Nerdery, Wunderman Thompson, and AIM Consulting.
Pam is a self-proclaimed “process junkie” and loves solving problems through process. She’s particularly passionate about building strong PM teams and answering the age-old question about how to deliver agile projects in a client service organization.
It is our number one job to ensure the successful delivery of our projects. It’s our whole job. You can’t do that if somebody is underperforming, and so you do need to address it.Pam Butkowski
Patrice Embry of Project Menagerie is a freelance digital project manager and Certified Scrum Master. After 25 years in the field, she has been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. Her clients have spanned far and wide across verticals: pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. Her client roster includes LeBron James, ExxonMobil, Merck HCP Education, Lundbeck Pharma, ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, GS1, SEI Investments, Hamline University, and many more.
Any kind of pushback to leadership is scary when you’re not quite at the senior level. So take it and run with it, and it’s your job – own it.Patrice Embry
Resources from this episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Connect with Pam Butkowski, Sally Shaughnessy, & Patrice Embry on LinkedIn
Related articles and podcasts:
- About the podcast
- Project Plan Guide: What It Is & How To Create A Solid One
- How To Create A Project Plan In 10 Easy Steps
- 3 Key Exercises To Build Trust In Agile Among Project Teams
- Project Kickoffs: 15 Steps To Start Projects On The Right Foot
- What Is Project Scope: Ultimate Guide & Step-By-Step Process
- What Are Project Milestones: How To Track Them & Examples
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Michael Mordak: Hey, it's Michael from the Digital Project Manager. Today's episode is a recording of an event that we hosted through our membership. The community had asked for insights and advice on how to deal with changes to projects that occur without our knowledge or input. So we gathered an elite panel of DPM experts to tackle a few common scenarios that I know you have experienced firsthand.
After today, you'll be equipped to face common project changes, including clients adding deliverables, new clients being rotated into a project, team members who start to underperform, and more. This was a fantastic conversation, and if you'd like to be a part of the next one, then I invite you to come learn more about membership on our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Well, we are at the top of the hour, so why don't I kick it off? I just want to welcome everybody. We'll start with Pam, who is a Vice President of Delivery Management at Hero Digital. She spent most of her career in agencies leading digital project management teams. She's currently leading delivery management practice at Hero, which includes their project and program managers, business analysts and product owners. That sounds like a lot of different teams and a lot of opportunity for externally driven change.
So I'm sorry, Pam, but thanks for being here.
Pam Butkowski: Nice meeting everybody.
Michael Mordak: And then we have Patrice as well. So Patrice is a freelance project manager and certified scrum master with over two decades of experience in digital and two decades of dealing with changes. Throughout her career, she's worked for agencies, corporations, and everything in between in the pharmaceutical industry, finance, construction, and ecommerce, also race cars. She's worked on large scale websites, mobile apps, CRM and CMS systems, and even print, if you remember print.
So, thanks Patrice.
Patrice Embry: I will say that's an old photo of me. I'm going to get you, that was pre mullet.
Michael Mordak: Oh yeah. We went to update to mullet Patrice.
And then last, but certainly not least, the person who came up with the topic for today, Sally has been a digital project leader since the early 2000s with experience ranging from global agencies to smaller startups. She's currently leading the PM practice at...
Sally Shaughnessy: I'm at Code and Theory. It's a New York based technology. First creative agency is our new tagline. And yeah, but been in the biz since the early 2000s. I'm seasoned as they describe us.
Michael Mordak: Amazing. Well, as you mentioned, you're in Denver as well. And yeah, so thanks everybody for being here.
We're going to dive in now because we're talking about changes. It's okay. I did my best. As DPMs, we do our best to be updated on all things related to the project, but there are conversations and decisions being made that are simply out of our control. They occur without our knowledge or input, but inevitably impact our ability to deliver on time, on budget and within scope, which is frustrating as all hell.
So what can we do about it? Well, that's why we're here. We'll be discussing strategies to approach and overcome these challenging situations so we can be set up for the best chance of success. So the way that today is going to work is we're going to start with one scenario. And then there are a few other scenarios that we can talk about that have been submitted.
And what I'm going to do is I want everybody to vote on which one they want to see first. But while that is happening and we're getting people to submit their vote on their, the scenario, we're going to jump into the first one. So scenario one, which is one that I think everybody, I picked this one because I just feel like it happens on a daily basis, seemingly.
But the client is adamant about adding deliverables to your project. You know that they are out of scope and will derail the timeline, but leadership wants you to make it happen to make the client happy or for whatever reason. So what do we do? And I'm going to kick this one off to Sally because she suggested this scenario.
So Sally, I'd love to hear how you approach this situation and what we can do about it.
Sally Shaughnessy: So my first remark is this happens often. And so there are plenty of ways that you can approach this. My first note though is, at the end of the day, your priority is to advocate for the project as much as possible.
And I've heard recently a lot of folks saying even though these mandates are happening, production still needs to be forthright and direct and verbal about the impact of what these things do. We don't want production to simply just, stay quiet or accept and move forward without advocating for the team, without advocating for the project, or talking about cause and effect.
If we didn't advocate for the project or discuss cause and effect, then where's the value that we're adding, I guess, is my first point. So, even though you have to deal with this somehow, you should still say, I understand why we want to do these things. I can see where they would add value to the project.
I need to go back and assess the impacts of these projects. Assure them that you hear them, that you understand what's going on. Lead with empathy, but be clear that there are going to be clear effects. And before we simply say, yes, we're adding these to the project plan, I want to have a frank discussion about maybe some trade offs.
Or maybe cause and effect to make sure that you're okay with the impacts of these projects, right? Simply being told that you have to add features to a project doesn't mean that you still need to make the timeline. Or that you need to make the budget. We just need to make it happen, right? So, if you can, in those instances, do a cause and effect analysis.
And set everybody up and say, I just need a little bit of time to assess the impacts of these changes. Let's set up a conversation in 48 hours, 72 hours. Let my team go back and assess how we can make these things happen. And let's have a conversation about it. I think that develops trust with your team and your clients to know that you have their interest in mind, but you're also trying to balance feasibility.
You're trying to balance the burden on the team and saying I get we're going to make it happen, but do we have to make it happen in sprint one? Can we roll these things out into other sprints? Could we still make the launch date and do these things as a fast follow? Do we do these things at the cost of some other things?
What's missing is the details here. Client is adding deliverables. Leadership says make it happen. But nobody's giving you the constraints of, do we have the flexibility to change budget? Do we have the flexibility to change timing or even change the scope? If we're agile and they want to add things in, do we get to take things out?
So, that's my lesson to you all is, take a breath, breathe, digest and say, I hear you, I understand that this is desired right now. I'd love to set up a conversation in a few days when my team has had a chance to assess the impacts and we can talk about how we're going to make it happen.
Pam Butkowski: Yeah, I agree with all of that, for sure.
Couple things to add. When you're doing that impact analysis, making sure that it is a measurable impact, like facts, not feelings, always when we're doing things like this, right? So my tech lead is going to be really pissed off at me if we add scope like this. Leadership doesn't care about that. Your client's not going to care about that.
We're going to see an overrun in budget by this much that they care about. So measurable impacts, not feelings based impacts are important. I think one thing that we do on my team that we've baked into our kickoff process for all of our projects is we have a little working session on how do we handle change with the client in our kickoffs.
And I make the client in every kickoff prioritize the three sides of the iron triangle. I need to know, in priority order, one, two, and three, what is the most important to you - scope, budget, or timeline? And whatever ends up in number three is the one that I get to own. So that when you come back to me and say, I want to change this, I want to change this. I know what my lever is and like I know where I like my playground is and my sandbox is so that I can come up with solutions and impact that side the most.
Patrice Embry: I am going to steal that first of all. Let's just put that out there right now. And I guess I'll say I'm going to Pam this situation right now. It's going to talk about the iron triangle. Let's Pam it. And I do also echo the options and consequences. I used to say all the time, they don't say yes or no. I give options and consequences.
Pam Butkowski: Yes, but. Or yes, and.
Sally Shaughnessy: I do the yes, and. It's going to cost more money. Yes, and.
Pam Butkowski: We don't say no, we give options.
Patrice Embry: Absolutely. And I will add, though, that if this happens once, that's a bummer. If it happens twice on different projects, that's a little alarming. And if it happens all the time, maybe this isn't the right place. If it were me, it's probably not the right place for me to work. So if this is happening all the time, something's not right in the process of being this, being sold.
Either the client isn't being prepped to understand what deliverables are and what they're agreeing to. And, something along the way is broken if this is happening more often than, especially with more than one client. So I would say, while facts not feelings, I totally agree with it. I would say that feelings are important if this happens a bunch, because eventually people will get tired of this and they'll leave.
So you can imagine what would happen if you had fewer people to work on a project where a client is adding deliverables. They do have to worry about the team jumping ship. I don't think anybody would do that for one thing or two things, but they would do it if it kept happening.
Pam Butkowski: Yeah, that's a fair call out, for sure.
Michael Mordak: Yeah. I love the way that Sally led that off with talking, like leading with empathy. Because I mean, to everyone's point there, like you want to be, have some amount of pushback and ask those questions and get the details, but you have to do it diplomatically. You can't just be confrontational about it and create more attention because you obviously still need to work with these people and you still need to deliver something and maintain those relationships.
Sally Shaughnessy: I just got off a call earlier today where somebody was feeling pressure to answer questions of our finance department. And they were saying like, well, they need answers. They, I, they're going to ask questions. And I said, you don't have to answer questions on the spot. You're allowed to tell them you need more time.
You're allowed to tell them that you need to assess a few variables right now before you're going to have a full picture of what's going on the project. I think more junior producers, project managers, or maybe even I would say I've seen that sort of thing happen at larger agencies with bigger brands and bigger stakeholder groups and clients.
It feels like there's more pressure for us to just suck it up or go along with it or not question, not push back, not be transparent about impacts. And I would challenge everybody to just slow down and build trust through transparency. That, to me, has served me well the most in my career, is talking to clients very freely about I want to be a good partner, I want to do right by you, I hear you, here's what it's going to take to make it happen, are you okay with that?
And that, rather than just being, you know, yes people, so that would be my other sort of empathy is empathy for the clients, but also empathy for the internal team, empathy for your company's bottom line. Empathy is not just human too, you want to be mindful and for all of those things. And for all of those things, we owe it to our teams, our clients and our projects to slow down, be transparent and ask more questions.
Patrice Embry: I want to just mention because I'm thinking about it. I'm like, Sally and I had worked together before and we have a lot of the same like values when it comes to these types of things. And I know Pam does too. This isn't easy to do if you're like more junior, it's a lot easier when you've been doing this for a while because you can be pretty matter of fact about it.
You can draw upon your experience and say, I've seen this before, and this is what might happen. But if you're not quite there yet, or don't feel completely confident in being able to bring something like this up, just know that this really is one of the things that's at the core of your job. And if anyone gives you any flack for bringing that up, it's fair to say, this is what my job is.
I'm not just someone who's trying to, make a timeline or, stay on budget. It's my job to tell you these things, and it's not easy to do, and it might be a little scary. And I will say, because community is important to me. It's helped me a lot. If you're not sure, or if you're not sure what to say, going to the Slack channel of DPM is a great way to throw it in there and see if, is my thinking right?
What can I say here? If you do what Sally says and, give yourself a second and say, I can't answer your question right now. And if you can't do that, find a trusted person that, you work with. You can ping one of us and just say to I'm just really not sure how to handle this. But understand that that's the core of your job. And it might seem a little scary to be the leadership, any kind of pushback to leadership is scary when you're not quite at the senior level. So, take it and run with it, and it's your job and own it.
Michael Mordak: That's brilliant. And you actually mentioned something I was going to say too, which is if you give yourself that time to come away and find an answer, then yeah, definitely reach out to the community because you've got an entire collection of people who have likely seen something similar and may have already gone through that situation through their own experience and can definitely provide some insight.
So that's a huge benefit you guys have as well. I'm going to wrap this one up and we're going to head to the next scenario, which was voted on by the people. And that one I believe was our fourth scenario. So this one, we're going to talk about a client rotated off. Here we go. All right. So this was got the most interest for people in the Slack channel.
So here we go. So a client has rotated off the project and a new client is not as excited about the work. So what do we do here? And I'm just gonna throw this one to Pam to start off if you're willing to go.
Pam Butkowski: When we say isn't as excited about the work, do you mean isn't as excited about the work that we've produced for them? Or they're not excited about being involved in the project?
Michael Mordak: I'm going to say that it's not as excited about the work that's being produced, maybe about the project in general. So, maybe they, this wasn't the idea that they would go for example.
Pam Butkowski: So whenever we have some kind of a change like this in stakeholders, I like to recommend a re-grounding, right? Do a little mini re-kickoff. Talk about all of the work that's gone into it up until then, and make sure that they understand these were intentional decisions. Here's how we got here, right? Our research and all of our discovery work led us here. We didn't just make a decision on a whim, right?
And try and help them understand why we are where we are first. A lot of times when a new client is coming in, they're seeing things, and again you're gonna hear me say facts, not feelings, a lot. But they're responding using their feelings. They're seeing something and they don't understand the context.
They don't have all the information about how you got here. And so to them, they just see something on a screen and they say, I don't like it. And so it's our job to educate them and bring them along for the ride and help them understand how we got here and then move forward. I think that context is really important and it is our responsibility to help them get there.
Patrice Embry: Yeah, I think that's a great point. And it's also, sometimes new clients or like people taking over for other people in a client scenario like this one, they just want to put their mark on it. Sometimes you can suss out what that might be. Maybe, you can tell that they like a certain style of imagery, and that might be something that you can affect and say sort of push them in that direction.
Maybe there's one small thing that you can do that won't blow everything up, but will, suffice for them. But again, this is another options and consequences type situation where yeah, we can do something different, but here's what's going to change because of it. Are you okay with that?
Sometimes they'll say, yes, this has happened to me so many times. The most recent time it was this giant website for a hospital, a really big hospital. And somebody else came in and they were like, this is not the way I did this when I was at other hospital. And I was like, okay, well, we're about a little over halfway through the project.
And what we can do is we can put it on hold and re-scope and have you sign an addendum. And as soon as I started seeing those things that were like, oh, okay, well, I could probably work within what I have. Because as a new person in a new position, I'm not sure that person would have wanted to say Oh, by the way, I also want a whole bunch more budget.
So, reminding them of those things too can be helpful, but this is not quite the same thing. And I can't remember who told me this, but if you add stakeholders, it adds X amount to your budget. And so each time, there's someone new, even if it's someone shuffling off and someone else shuffling on, it's gonna add time and money. That's just something to understand and know, even if they're not saying, I'm not excited about the work, I want something to be done differently. You're going to have a bump and uptick. If you've got like a contingency budget, you can start using that or talk about using that.
But also understand that even if they're thrilled about the work, there's ramp up time for them. There might be things that they like to do differently in terms of what they wouldn't see as a status. So always keep that in mind as well.
Pam Butkowski: Yeah, I think that leading, or talking about empathy as well is important here, right? It's not easy for them coming into a project mid flight. And the reason that they might be rotating in might not be a great one, right? Maybe somebody was let go because of what's happening on the project, and they this is a redemption moment for them, right? Maybe it's a huge growth opportunity for them, right?
This is their big break. And they're trying to, to your point, Patrice they need to put their stamp on it. Understanding why the rotation happened and why they were resourced onto this work will help us help them.
Sally Shaughnessy: That's what I was gonna add. Aside from having the re-kickoff, which I think is really smart, and understanding why they're not excited or what it is that they're looking for is incredibly important.
Maybe related, but aside from the project, adding new stakeholders or rotations can be a really vulnerable moment for your agency relationship. That previous client may have been a big ally for your group, for your agency. And new clients, if they're a new hire, sometimes those new clients come with their preferred vendor set.
This is a really vulnerable moment for your agency's relationship. You don't want to get fired so that they can bring in their people that they already know and trust. So, once you hear that your client is leaving, you want to make sure that you find out right away who's replacing them. And reach out, we had a process, we actually formalized this process so that we didn't miss the opportunity to get in front of new clients.
So, at Aten, we had a process that said the second that the project manager found out that our client was leaving, we immediately reached out to them and their manager to say, we understand that there's a new client coming on board, we'd really love to meet them. And we almost did a kickoff like a pitch to the new client, speak that they were on.
Hey, we understand you're new to your job. We're at and we're your agency. We've been building this website for a little while. We know that week number 1 is usually drinking from a fire hose. So we don't want to, flood your schedule this week. But next week, we'd really like to sit down and talk to you about the history of the project, the history of our relationship, things that we can do.
But also the agenda for that meeting is introducing the agency, your team capabilities, the history of the relationship, but also hearing from that new client. What are your goals? What are your quick wins that you want to get out of this project? How can we help you get those quick wins? Do you need more time?
Do we need to slow down a little bit so that you can immerse yourself into this project? So that might come from you, the project manager, or you may need to escalate it based on, your group's preferred method for this. But at our agency, it was the salesperson or the account person plus the day to day project manager.
So that they knew where their, lines of communication with the agency were. That way you also had a little bit of this is why we did the things the way that we did them. We hear that you're probably, you're not very excited because you have, old hospital experience. Can we talk a little bit more about your vision for, your new job, your vision for this project.
And it might even require an executive level hello. Right? We know, we just had some team change on our client side recently, and our CEO reached out to our new client just to say, Hey, how you doing? Know, like, just have some internal awareness around your rules of engagement for this new client.
Because there's two tracks - there's handling why they don't like the work, but also securing your space as their preferred vendor.
Pam Butkowski: I agree with that completely. We actually just had this happen on a pretty large scale as well where we had a client leave the company involuntarily. And she was from the marketing side of the org, right?
And so she cared about sexy design work and like, all this exciting functionality, right? And then her replacement was from IT. And that person laser focused on the authoring experience. And we flew our team out to their offices and said, we're all sitting down. We have to reprioritize, right? We have to talk about what's important, given the constraints for the rest of the project.
We were going into UAT at that point. Dev was done. And so we said, you know what? Taking a two day pause is not going to hurt anyone, everyone in a room. And sometimes that's what you need to do, right? I'm getting on a plane. Sit down. Let's figure it out.
Patrice Embry: That to me screams phase 2 also.
Pam Butkowski: Yeah. You know what we used it for? Here's the other piece. That's how you win more work. Because we walk out there with a Phase 2 backlog.
Patrice Embry: Totally.
Michael Mordak: Yeah. I mean, I think that there's been some conversation in the chat as well about just that idea of empathy. And I think that it's something that I was actually speaking with Melody MacKeand about recently.
It's just about how important that people management side of things is, like it's so much of project management is actually just understanding the people that you're working with and knowing how they work, what their goals are, that kind of thing. And this is where it all starts is just, yeah, it's trying to see things from their perspective and taking a second to chat with them. Pam said, maybe you fly to them and then chat with them face to face even. And it just builds up that relationship so quickly and yeah, that's perfect. I love that discussion.
We're going to jump ahead to our next one, which based on the voting system that we have implemented here, looks like it is this scenario here number two, where we're going to talk about some difficult conversations with your team here. So a person on your team is underperforming and you are not their supervisor. What do you do? And I've picked on Sally, I've picked on Pam. So Patrice, I'm going to send this one over to you first.
Patrice Embry: This is a tough one for people like me who really care about people so much that, you want to give constructive, feedback, but it can be so difficult to do, especially if you aren't their supervisor, it's not easy.
So when you say a person on your team is underperforming, I'm guessing you mean the project team, and that's why you're not their supervisor. I often talk about it and, especially if I know the person has a little bit of an ego, or it might be a blow to their ego, or they might not appreciate someone who isn't their supervisor giving them feedback.
Just talk about it in terms of the project. If you look like we need a little bit more of this, what do you think about that? Just draw them into the conversation and, oftentimes they'll they know if they're underperforming, especially if they're in a little bit more of a senior role.
They'll know if they're not giving it their all. And sometimes all it takes is for someone to, like you, to point it out and in a non-confrontational way, just for them to be like, eh, yeah, I know, I totally need to do this. And then all of a sudden things start, working out a little bit better. If it's a more junior person, sometimes I might go to their supervisor and say hey, I feel like this person might be in a little over their head, I talked about this and they weren't really sure what to do about that. And it feels like it would be a really great idea to do this for them. I just wanted to mention it to you to see if that was something you wanted to do. I've done that before. It's not so much going behind that person's back as it is giving them some support that they might not even realize that they knew themselves.
So, that's always an option as well. And if it gets really bad, I don't love to go to people's supervisors to complain about someone. But sometimes it's inevitable and you just have to say, listen, the only reason why I'm talking to you is because my project, this project is going to fail.
That is bad for everyone. So I want to make sure that I talk to you about this and I want to get your support and being able to, write the shit. But definitely try to do things on your own in a constructive way before you pull out the big gun and go to someone's supervisor. But I'd love to hear other people's takes on this because I will say that this is not the thing that I'm best at.
I'm interested to hear what Pam and Sally say.
Pam Butkowski: It is our number one job to ensure the successful delivery of our projects, right? It's our whole job. You can't do that if somebody is underperforming. And so you do need to address it. You can't let it keep going. However, you also can't like a successful delivery does not just mean on time, on budget, within scope, right?
There are a lot of other factors that go into that. I also would not call a project successful if everybody hates each other on the team at the end of it. Right? So, handling it with grace and to Patrice's point trying to be a partner to them first. You're all on the same team. And yeah, you have a responsibility to make sure that you're delivering successfully.
But again, you can't do that if you're, like, escalating all the time and your team doesn't trust you. So coming from a place of trust and hey, let's get through this together, right? How can I help you? What are you struggling with? They might not know what's going on. They might right? You might be able to help them through it just because they have questions.
Or there might be something in their personal life where then you can give them advice on hey, maybe you do want to talk to your manager about it. But coming to them first as a partner, as an advocate, as a friend, and see if you can work through it that way first. But then I totally agree with you, Patrice if you do need to make the tough call and escalate you gotta do it.
Patrice Embry: Bummer.
Sally Shaughnessy: I would package what you're saying and add to it three things - assess, respond, and plan. Assess - is this a skill issue, a style issue? Assess if it's a pattern of problems. Is it a capacity issue? What kind of issues are you having? So assess what kind of problems you think this is off the bat, because that might influence, do you self solve directly with that person?
Or do you go right to their manager? Or do you do a combination of both? So assess what kind of issue you're having. I would always advocate for direct one to one self solving first. Again, building the rhythm, building the trust as a team, things like that. I would totally agree with that. So nine times out of ten, try your best to talk to them directly.
People get defensive when their managers hear about something, and, try, even though it requires courage and bravery and tough conversations, try to direct self solve. I 100% agree with Patrice inviting them into the conversation, asking for permission to talk about it, saying, Hey, can we talk about the project a little bit?
Do you mind? I've been noticing some things. Do you have a couple of minutes to talk about it? Is almost asking for their permission to give some feedback to them, right? Nobody wants to be blindsided by stuff like this. I have also been trained to talk to people about, like, when you're delivering feedback, talk to them about what is expected, what you're seeing and what the risks or results of what you're seeing are. We're expecting you to work 40 hours. I see you're doing 20. The results are we're probably going to be behind schedule. Or, we expect you to join those client calls on time so that we can put our best foot forward with the client.
When you show up late, it erodes trust. Can I help you figure out how to get you to these meetings on time? Right? What is it about your schedule? Right? Offer to help, too. So, I expect you to do this. I'm seeing you to do that. This is the risk or the result of that. If it's a pattern of behavior, if it's a coaching issue, if it's a skills issue clearly they don't know what they're doing, that's definitely a go to the manager, go to your resourcing team.
I don't think we have the right people on the project. How can we solve this? I know that this person really wants to grow into this role, but they don't understand Drupal. They need more training. How can we do that? So, that's assess what it is, respond to the appropriate people, and then plan. What happens if nobody helps you to resolve this problem?
You've got to come up with a contingency plan. Right? What's your go-no-go moment here if your self solving doesn't work, or the manager just doesn't care? What's your contingency plan? Because you don't want to be caught flat footed if you don't see the change that the project needs.
Patrice Embry: This is actually also one of those things where I feel like out of anything, this is where empathy comes into play the most. And if someone is acting differently than you're used to, and they're underperforming and they're not usually underperforming, it's a really good idea to just say Hey! You don't sound like yourself, I got fired from a project and I'm a freelancer.
So that's like being fired from a job. Because my father had just passed away and my stepmother six months later died of a heart attack very suddenly. And I was not myself. It was a long road with my dad and it was, I knew that I wasn't doing well. And so someone finally came to me and said Is everything all right?
And I build it all out. And, there's always like a little bit of a wall that you want to have between your personal life and your work life, but sometimes you need to ask someone like, is everything okay? And you might get this huge thing is happening behind the scenes. And then you're like, Oh, my God.
Now I understand what's going on. What can I do to support you to make sure these things are done? Or these are the bare minimum things that need to be done. Can you do these things? And is it alright if I go and see if I have someone else who can help with these other things? So this is the empathy play for me out of any of these. This is the play where the empathy comes in the most.
Pam Butkowski: Completely agree.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, I think this kind of became a conversation about empathy through all these scenarios in a way. It's been so prevalent through all these different scenarios, just understanding where people are coming from. And one thing that Erika mentioned in the chat as well as in building off of what Sally had been talking about was the idea of clarity being kindness.
And just yeah, I mean, if there's any ambiguity in there, then it's not helping the situation. It's not helping either side understand what the best foot forward is. That was great discussion around, yeah, some difficult conversations, because I mean, those come up all the time and the fact of the matter with Patrice's example, as things come up, people can go through different situations and it might affect them worse one day, or, for a certain length of time, but you just never know what people are going through.
So it's always good to just take a second to understand. And now we're going to jump to our next scenario, which there was a tiebreaker for this one. I think this will be our last one and then we'll wrap up. Starting a project when you're not ready. So leadership team tells you to start a project and you're not ready to go.
Now, I assume I'm going to get some questions around this one, like not ready in what sense. So actually I think Sally, I think you pitched this scenario. So maybe if you want to give it a few more details and then we can jump into it.
Sally Shaughnessy: So, I don't know if anybody else here works for a publicly traded company, but publicly traded companies have certain financial reporting obligations. And they also have financial targets that have some strings tied to it that smaller, non publicly traded companies do.
Now, I work for a publicly traded company, and this scenario happens all the time because our leadership has financial targets, and they want to meet or exceed them. And starting a project means that we can accrue revenue as soon as possible. So the second that things get signed, they want us to start.
And so this is a common problem that I work with my team on all the time. And so this has, again, goes back to what I was saying earlier about people feel pressure when they hear leadership teams says they need something or want something and our people just want to jump. And they want to just say, yes, we can do all of that.
I am coaching people to grow in your role and resist the urge to just blindly move forward. Frankly, what the heck are you going to move forward on, right? We know to start a project, you need clarity of scope. You need to set up the tools. You need to assemble a team. And maybe that team's working on something else.
So, you're not ready might mean we don't have signature. It might mean that you don't have a team that's ready to start working on it. Or, you don't have access to the client's analytics or website backend, or you haven't chosen a hosting provider for the website you're going to build, so you can't even set up environments to start designing or working, right?
There are a million reasons for you to not be ready. Now, what I've coached my team to do is talk to whomever is asking for you to start. What does start mean to you? Is there a financial target that you're trying to hit? If they say, we want to accrue $50,000 in the first month, then maybe you assess your project plan and say, the project management team can talk to the client about a pre kickoff, but we don't have the resources ready yet. So perhaps we could do a half step kickoff where we just meet the client and talk about the project charter or stakeholder matrix and things like that, that are not destructive to the project burn.
If the client says, we want to bill $50,000 in that first month. I tell my team, life is a negotiation, so maybe ask them if they'd be happy with 20. And again, saying, if we have to bill 50 and we're not ready, I'm going to tell you that 30 percent delta is probably going to be an investment on the back end, because we won't be doing valuable work.
And so are you prepared for that? The yes, and. Yes, we can do that. And it's gonna mean that it's gonna be useless throwaway hours at the end of the project. I would also recommend that you get this in writing, that you received a directive on March 1st to say start early and you do not have resources available, so here's what you can get started on.
Here's what you can't get started on. So that you yourself aren't held accountable when the project goes into the red at the end because you've burnt a bunch of hours just spinning around talking about what we should do to get started too early or prematurely. But for my, so what I'm saying is to summarize, get it in writing that you were asked.
Negotiate on this if you can. Revisit your project plan and your activities and deliverables to see what you can get started on that won't be destructive, that won't result in rework once you are ready. I would also talk about your exposure. If you start a project without having signature, what happens if the client actually pulls the project and you can't bill them for the work you got started on because they actually never signed the contract.
So, again, this is one of those moments where you slow down, take a breath, figure out what the risks are, figure out what you can do to preserve your project and yourself and also cover your ass and make sure that you say you asked me to start early in six months from now when we start to go over, I'm going to remind you that you told me to start early.
Patrice Embry: So, by the way, if I had a nickel for every time this has happened to me, I wouldn't have to work anymore. Honestly, so often.
Sally Shaughnessy: Yeah, this is a big one for us because obviously we're publicly traded, and there are financial projections. But the biggest thing that tends to stump this is because people are working on other projects.
We expected to start this on April 1st, and you're asking us to start in March 1st. I can't free these other people up from their project yet, so what do you want me to do? So, at my last agency, again, there was transparency and building trust, and we had no problem disappointing clients, and we didn't have the financial pressures that my current company has.
So, while we were all very excited to get started, we had a three phased kickoff process that allowed us to slow walk project initiation. It allowed time for the teams to wrap up their projects before we had to get them invested in the first few milestones. And a lot of that was really operations and project management setup, right?
Like getting the brief written, getting access to the back end of things, getting access to their analytics so that we could do homework before the kickoff. And a lot of the times the clients were super slow with that stuff. So it actually bought us time to like really free people up and get ready to have a good start instead of this frenetic half-assed start.
This is a really incredible moment when you start a project, and if you start it wrong, everything's gonna go poorly after that, more often than not. And so, trying to salvage a good start as much as possible is in everybody's best interest.
Pam Butkowski: I love the crawl, walk, run, or whatever you said, strategy, right? So we've built that into all of our SOWs, too, where we have a two week immersion session where it is truly just, or like immersion period, where we are just intaking research. We are, like, shoring up the team, and it's all billable so that we can start incurring revenue. This is an interesting one for me because I'm the asshole who is pushing my teams to start as quickly as possible.
I know because we've committed to revenue goals and revenue targets. We've committed to the forecast, right? And so I'm responsible for revenue projections. And so what I need from my team, if I'm pushing them too hard, I need facts, again, right? Like I need data. I need to understand what the blockers to starting are.
If the client is on vacation for two weeks, there's nothing we can do about that. Right? We, there's nobody to kick off with. Are there things that we can do in the background while we're waiting for them to get back? I need to understand, again what those blockers are so that then we can strategize on, like, how do we get around them?
Can we get around them? Are we truly blocked and we cannot kick off because we don't have a single person resource to this team? Good to know. Is it because we haven't decided on a hosting solution yet? That I can work around, right? That we can work on other things we can focus on other areas. But I always like when I'm on the again the asshole side of this, like pushing my teams to get started.
I need to know what's blocking them so that we can work around it. So I wouldn't recommend that and give that piece of advice. Go back to leadership and say, these are the exact reasons that I can't start at full velocity right now and come with a plan. Say, this is what I can get started on. Something that's better than nothing in those situations.
Patrice Embry: Absolutely. You can even I'm coming at this not from a revenue recognition standpoint, the way that you guys are. Often this is happening for me because the client is pressuring leadership or sales has sold it like it's going to be started right away.
And so if you're able to say okay, well, these are the things I can do right now make a milestone out of putting a team together. And so you're telling the client this is happening it's not normally a milestone for you, but make it one. But if it's a smaller agency and leadership is telling me to do something like this, sometimes I'll say, what would happen if we said no? What would happen if we told the client we can't start now?
And a lot of times they'll be like, well, I can tell them that, or it'll be, like the salesperson told them that, okay, well, maybe we can say that a more efficient start date for us would be this time because this discipline is available at that time. And that makes the most sense for us because of our budget or you can come up with lots of things, but, again, when you're just starting out, it's hard to say, what would happen if we did it? But, if you can find it in yourself, and if you feel like it's the right thing to do, sometimes it's not.
But if you feel like it's the right thing to do, if you can tell that the pressure, it's coming from a place of I promised this before I sold this and I really need to, get started or my reputation is on the line as an agency or really small and scrappy. We need to do something. Did they ask, what would happen if we didn't? And if they say no, we really do have to, or the delay was on sales part and now we have to make up the difference, which, by the way, sales don't do this, please after the love of God.
But, if you can do what you can to make the normal itty bitty stuff seem like a big deal I'm doing I think Sally, you said the project brief. Well, you normally just do the project brief, whatever, or I'm coming up with the agenda for the kickoff and that can be like a thing too.
So you can mask not starting with doing a few other things, but it does burn budget. Sally said, you can burn a lot of budget beginning if you're just bamping until something can actually get done. At the end of the day, you can't invent time. You can't invent team like you can't just pull it out of nowhere.
So if leadership, sometimes if they tell me that it needs to happen, I might say well, okay, well, how would you do that? Like this person's not ready. This person's not ready. This person's not ready. How do you suggest that I do that? Because I'm, I'm in a little bit of a loss and it's okay to say that. It's okay to say I don't know how to start this. We're not ready.
Well, what do you want to do? How would you like to ask people about that? Yeah, there's nothing wrong with saying that, honestly. And that's also a scary thing because it feels like you're admitting that you don't know what you're doing, but you're not. You're just admitting that it's a kind of an impossible situation that you are the person who can make that call.
Pam Butkowski: Yeah, I think too, if this is happening like chronically at your organization if this is a forever problem and it happens on every project, something is broken in the sales process. Right, we're setting bad expectations with our clients.
The sales team maybe isn't fully understanding what the onboarding and ramp up period looks like. It could be as simple as like helping educate them on that. But I would say that's an opportunity. That's an opportunity for us as delivery leaders to partner with our sales team and say, how can we make this more seamless, right?
Because it's a crappy experience for your clients too, to be told one thing and then be told by us, just kidding, right? JKLOL. We'll talk to you in three weeks. That sucks for them. So I think that's an opportunity for us again to help bridge that gap and fix the broken process. If it's happening all the time, something is broken and we're fixers.
So I think it's completely within the realm of our responsibilities to help fix what is broken in the sales process, even though it's not solely in delivery.
Sally Shaughnessy: That opens up a whole other workshop about how to get producers and production into the sales process advocating for delivery.
Pam Butkowski: I would love to listen to that.
Patrice Embry: Oh yeah.
Michael Mordak: Join us.
Pam Butkowski: We've done it successfully and it's working really well. I'd love to talk about that one.
Sally Shaughnessy: It works when all of the capabilities are consulted and everybody has a unified vision on what to sell, how to sell it and how to deliver it. It's magic.
Pam Butkowski: Magic. Unicorns. Rainbows.
Sally Shaughnessy: The only thought I'd add, I put it in the chat is Patrice's, how would you like me to do that?
That's actually the, one of the biggest pieces of advice in the book on negotiation called Never Split the Difference, which is top 10 business books that everybody's supposed to read. If you watch his, the YouTube videos on Chris Voss or the Masterclass with Chris Voss. When some, he negotiates with terrorists and kidnappers, but when they say, I need a helicopter in 30 minutes, like his famous go to is, how would you like me to accomplish that?
And so instead, it gets them out of answering and saying yes or no, it puts the question back on the requester to bring them into the solution and make them invested in how challenging it really is for you to accomplish that for them.
Michael Mordak: I love that summary. Thanks so much. And now I realize we're getting close to the hour as well. I just want to thank everybody again for coming. This was incredibly insightful. There's so much information in here. That's all I have for you guys. Thank you so much for attending. Really appreciate everybody's time. Thanks again to our panelists and we'll see you guys at the next one, really looking forward to it.